The golden days of Golden Gloves

Residents of Manistique Ave. between Korte and Scripps turn out to watch neighborhood kids in Golden Gloves preliminary bouts on a warm late summer evening in 1939.

The Detroit News obituary page of Nov. 5. 1997,  noted the deaths of two elderly Detroit men, each a stranger to the other but each with a common bond that reached back more than 50 years — the Golden Gloves.

Russell Warsaw, who died at age 77, won the 1939 Golden Gloves welterweight championship and was later inducted into the Hamtramck Sports Hall of Fame. Edward Forsyth, who fought under the name Black Nelson, died at age 84. He fought in Golden Gloves matches and later had nine professional fights, once sparring with Willie Pop. He took pride in having once met Joe Louis.

Amateur boxing enjoyed enormous popularity in the 1930s, ’40s and into the ’50s. It was a simpler, more innocent time for the sport of boxing, with gentlemanly heroes like Joe Louis who were considered worthy role models for children. For the most part, the seamy underside of the sport remained hidden.

A group of young Detroit boxers practice technique at Kronk Gym in the 1950s.

Children received boxing gloves as Christmas or birthday gifts and were cheered on by their parents in amateur matches the same way young soccer players are encouraged today. Black eyes were badges of pride to young fighters who sneered at wearing protective headgear.

Well-known Detroiters like Motown founder Barry Gordy and the late singer Jackie Wilson fought in Golden Gloves tournaments, proudly emulating their hero Joe Louis.

Most Detroit-area high schools had boxing programs with regular system-wide tournaments. The Detroit News sponsored the Golden Gloves program, while its bitter rival Detroit Times sponsored a program called “Diamond Belt.” The Detroit Recreation Department and the Catholic Youth Organization were also heavily involved with amateur boxing. Organizations like the Goodfellows and the United Auto Workers also sponsored tournaments, with recognition and prizes from the Amateur Boxing Association.

Matches and tournaments were held in venues like the Olympia Stadium, The State Fairgrounds, University of Detroit Stadium, Graystone Ballroom and the Music Hall. Sellout crowds were common.

The late Jackie Wilson, famed Motown singer, boxed in Detroit Golden Gloves events as a young boy.

Preliminary bouts were held in smaller halls with overflowing crowd. Bouts were often held in open lots and even private lawns, with neighbors gathering to watch the kids go at it.

Frank Buc, a Hamtramck retiree who participated in high school boxing events in the late 1930s, recalls with pride, “I lost to James Edgar.”

Edgar, although far overshadowed by Joe Louis, reached some national prominence.

In 1940 Edgar, then 18, topped the field in a Diamond Belt tournament. It was no new experience — he had won six titles before he went to San Francisco for the nationals. Edgar was a fighter without wasted moves, rarely starting a blow that did not land. He waited for openings, worked his way in close for the short jolts, his forte.

He turned pro and by 1942 had fought in 20 bouts, winning 12 by knockout. In 1946, as a sergeant in the army he toured the U.S. instructing troops in boxing. The Army allowed him to take part in civilian matches.

Having lost previously to Jake LaMotta, whose life story was told in the movie “Raging Bull,” Edgar was awarded a rematch on June 14, 1946, that ended in a draw.

The Detroit News reported, “Fans Incredulous as Jimmy Edgar is Given a Draw with Jake LaMotta Who is ‘Burned Up’.” Fifteen thousand fans at University of Detroit stadium heard the announcement after the fight. The judges and referee cards disagreed on rounds but came to a draw in the tally.

LaMotta himself heard the decision as he was lying on a rubbing table with a towel on his battered head.

“Jake is burned up,” his manager, Jim Murray said. “We’re trying to cool him off.”

LaMotta grunted. His younger brother, Joey, moved around the room excoriating the officials.

“What do you think of the decision, Jake?” a reporter asked.

Detroit’s James Edgar fought in Golden Gloves before turning pro. A middleweight, he fought Jake LaMotta twice, losing once and gaining a draw in the rematch.

“Do you want to get me burned up again,” blurted LaMotta without removing the towel.

Both sides lustily assailed the decision but neither disputed the integrity of the officials.

In 1947 the state boxing commissioner barren Edgar from the ring. A cataract had left him almost totally blind in his left eye and his right eye was starting to fail.

The modern sport of boxing began in 1919, when new rules that required gloves were introduced. Until that time fights were mostly bare-knuckled and bloody and were often held one step ahead of the law.

On May 28, 1886, Sam Bittle of Guelph, Ontario defeated lightweight champion Harry Gilmore of Toronto in a bout on Harsens Island. The fight lasted 26 rounds — one hour and 42 minutes. Bittle’s nose was broken in the first round, but that didn’t stop him from winning in the end. He took home $1,700, the loser $100.

The spectators and the fighters had secretly left Detroit early that morning on the steamer Hattie and landed on Harsens Island, assembling at the McQueen farm for the fight which began at 8:20 a.m. When it was over the pugilists removed to Canada to avoid arrest. The fans debarked upriver, leaving only the crew of the Hattie to return to the Detroit wharf at Randolph street, where they were greeted by the police.

Joe Louis and Leon Spinks were not the only world heavyweight champions to come out of Detroit. Tommy Burns, who was born Noah Brusso in 1881 in Hanover Ontario, moved to Detroit as a youth. He took boxing lessons from Jack Collins, physical director of the Detroit Athletic Club.

In 1900 he fought his first match in Detroit against Fred Thornton, winning in a decision. In a later rematch he KO’d Thornton in the fifth. Offered a dollar for the fight, he had held out for a dollar and a quarter.

Jake LaMotta, left, is rocked by Detroiter James Edgar in the fifth round of their rematch in 1946. The fight ended in a draw.

On Feb. 23, 1906, Burns won a 20-round decision over Marvin Hart in San Francisco to become world heavyweight champion. He lost the title in Australia in 1908 to the great Jack Johnson, whom boxing historian Nat Fleisher rates as the greatest boxer of all time.

Besieged from forces within and without the sport, boxing’s popularity and credibility have faded sharply in recent years, in spite of the efforts of Detroiter Emanuel Steward and the famous Kronk gym. Famed fighters Tommy Hearns and Spinks came out of Kronk.

One powerful and effective enemy of the sport is the American Medical Association, which has kept up pressure for years for a ban on the sport. Schools long ago dropped the sport.

Gary Richards, registration chairman of the Michigan Association of USA Boxing, says there are only 578 registered amateurs for 1997, down much from earlier years.

“Somewhere in the early 1980s boxing hit a wall,” says Dale Grable, president of the association. “We’re still trying to recover.” Grable cites the AMA opposition and laws requiring headgear as factors in the decline of interest in the sport.

The Golden Gloves of Metropolitan Detroit still serves the local amateurs boxers, even though their numbers have declined. The group also raises money for scholarships for their athletes.

Sam Basirico, 12, and Cosmo Deluca, 12, mix it up at the Gene Tunney Club at Fourteenth and Fenkell in October, 1945. The third man in the ring is Edgar Waling, a former boxer who was a boxing instructor for the Detroit Recreation Dept. In the background are boys waiting their turns to get in the ring.

By Vivian Baulch / The Detroit News